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Can Shad Thornton Exploit the UNC Run Defense and Turn the Rivalry Back to the Good Guys?

And are the Tar Heels really as bad as the raw rushing defensive numbers suggest? And why am I posing so many questions today? What should I have for lunch? Hmm.

Streeter Lecka

Yesterday we documented the North Carolina offense's difficulties on the ground. The picture isn't much prettier for a Tar Heel defensive unit that allows 203 rushing yards per game. Teams that allow double the yards rushing they gain themselves have things like 2-5 records.

The Tar Heels' 203 yards allowed per game ranks 99th in the FBS; they give up 4.41 yards per carry, which is a little better at 79th. Opponents are keeping the ball on the ground for 46 snaps a game, ninth most in the FBS. Even with a game against Georgia Tech to skew the stats a bit, it's clear that teams feel they can exploit UNC in the running game. And, for the most part, teams have been correct.

The Heels have been gashed for four runs of 40+ yards; only 12 FBS teams have allowed more. And Heel opposition has amassed 13 touchdowns on the ground already this season. Only Virginia has allowed more among ACC teams.

The Heels are allowing 27.7 points per game, a number that is actually a bit lower than one might expect given their troubles against the run. Take out the yo-ho-ho-jolly-overload 55-point WTF? breakdown against the Pirates, and the Heels allow just 23.2 points per game. That would make them a top 45 scoring defense. Respectable, if not exactly intimidating.

But then there's the schedule to consider. Four of the Tar Heels' opponents (USC-East, Miami, Georgia Tech, and ECU) have a top 40 offense according to F/+ rankings. None of the opposition offenses, not even Virginia Tech's atrocity (80th) that was held scoreless for a half against Duke, are considered by the F/+ formula to be as inept as N.C. State's unit (103rd). In their lone good defensive performance against the run, the Heels held the Hokies to 48 yards on 34 attempts. If the Pack is really worse than Va. Tech offensively (oh the horror), they might find it harder than expected to get the ground game going.

So, do we have ourselves a team that is much better than its 2-5 record indicates, as F/+ maintains? The Football Outsiders give the Heels credit for the 13th toughest schedule in the nation thus far and rank them as the 43rd best team in the country despite the woeful record. If the Pack (who are just one win better than the Heels despite the 57th toughest schedule) have a Virginia Tech-like running performance against Carolina, things are going to get really ugly.

Dave Doeren has said that you will know when the program has arrived when the Pack rushes for 300 yards in a game. Was the Heels' one good defensive performance against the Hokies a fluke? Can the Pack pound their way to the triple century mark on Saturday? That might be what it takes to win. However, I'm not sure a win over UNC in what has been an otherwise forgettable 3-4 debut season for Doeren, even a win with 300 yards on the ground, will convince anyone that this team has arrived. It would certainly go a long way towards assuaging the Pack faithful's ire over the current three-game losing streak while hopefully reenergizing both the fanbase and the team for a bowl run.

So why all this focus on the run game? One need look no further than the run stats to see why the Pack enjoyed a five-game winning streak over the Heels, and the run game reveals why that streak stuttered to a halt a year ago. During the five-game winning streak, State held Carolina to a grand total of 223 yards on 134 attempts (1.7 yards per attempt). Included in those totals is the minus-seven-yard performance from 2010 as well as the Heels' three-yard effort in 2011. The streak crashed to a halt in 2012 when Carolina ran for 212 yards on 39 attempts (5.4 yards per attempt), nearly matching its grand total from the previous five games. State tripled Carolina's rushing output during the streak but managed just 67 yards a year ago.

For State to dominate the ground game it will have to rely heavily on sophomore Shadrach Thornton, who is coming off a career-best 173-yard day against Florida State. Shad's fifth career 100-yard game took him over the 1,000-yard mark for his career. In the 15 games where he has played and gotten at least one carry (he had a kick return against Richmond but did not see action in the backfield), Thornton has rushed for 1,051 yards on 222 carries (4.7 per carry) and scored seven times. He's added 336 yards through the air on 39 catches (8.6 per catch) with an additional score. Freshperson Matt Dayes (4.1 per carry/8.1 per catch) and Anthony Creecy (3.6 per carry/5.4 per catch over the last two years) have not shown Shad's explosiveness. Unfortunately, be it repercussions from off the field problems or a lack of being ready to play week in and week out, Thornton has been as likely to disappear as to explode in his career. On seven occasions he has been held to 40 yards or less.

Thornton seemed to be maturing into The Man at the end of his freshman year when he put up three consecutive 100-yard games to close the regular season, but off the field problems got him suspended for a game and in the coach's doghouse for much of the early part of 2013. He didn't get 20 touches until the Syracuse game. Was the FSU game an outlier, or was that the breakout game for Shad? If he gets 25 carries for 150 yards against the Heels, I like State's chances to get back on the good side of this rivalry.

Of course it won't matter if the defense doesn't show up until the second quarter.